How Iron Is Obtained
Iron is one of the handful of elements that was known to ancient civilizations. Originally it was prepared by heating a naturally occurring ore of iron with charcoal in a very hot flame. The charcoal was obtained by heating wood in the absence of air. There is some evidence that this method of preparation was known as early as 3,000 B.C., but the secret of ore smelting was carefully guarded within the Hittite civilization of the Near East for almost two more millennia.
When the Hittite civilization fell in about 1200 B.C., the process of iron ore smelting spread throughout eastern and southern Europe. Ironsmiths were soon making ornamental objects, simple tools, and weapons from iron. So dramatic was the impact of this new technology on human societies that the period following 1200 B.C. is generally known as the Iron Age.
A major change in the technique for producing iron from its ores occurred in about 1773. As trees (and therefore the charcoal made from them) grew increasingly scarce in Great Britain, the English inventor Abraham Darby (1678?-1717) discovered a method for making coke from soft coal. Since coal was abundant in the British Isles, Darby's technique insured a constant supply of coal for the conversion of iron ores to the pure metal. The modern production of iron involves heating iron ore with coke and limestone in a blast furnace, where temperatures range from 392°F (200°C) at the top of the furnace to 3,632°F (2,000°C) at the bottom. Some blast furnaces are as tall as 15-story buildings and can produce 2,400 tons of iron per day.
Inside a blast furnace, a number of chemical reactions occur. One of these involves the reaction between coke (nearly pure carbon) with oxygen to form carbon monoxide. This carbon monoxide then reacts with iron ore to form pure iron and carbon dioxide. Limestone is added to the reaction mixture to remove impurities in the iron ore. The product of this reaction, known as slag, consists primarily of calcium silicate. The iron formed in a blast furnace exists in a molten form known as pig iron that can be drawn off at the bottom of the furnace. The slag is also molten but less dense than the iron. It is drawn off from taps just above the outlet from which the molten iron is removed.
Efforts to use pig iron for commercial and industrial applications were not very successful. The material was quite brittle and objects of which it was made tended to break easily. Cannons made of pig iron, for example, were likely to blow apart when they fired a shell. By 1760, inventors had begun to find ways of toughening pig iron. These methods involved remelting the pig iron and then burning off the carbon that remained mixed with the product. The most successful early device for accomplishing this step was the Bessemer converter, named after its English inventor Henry Bessemer (1813-1898). In the Bessemer converter, a blast of hot air is blown through molten pig iron. The process results in the formation of stronger forms of iron, cast and wrought iron. More importantly, when additional elements, such as manganese and chromium, are added to the converter, a new product—steel—is formed.
Later inventions improved on the production of steel by the Bessemer converter. In the open hearth process, for example, a charge of molten pig iron, hematite, scrap iron, and limestone is placed into a large brick container. A blast of hot air or oxygen is then blown across the surface of the molten mixture. Chemical reactions within the molten mixture result in the formation of either pure iron or, with the addition of alloying metals such as manganese or chromium, a high grade of steel.
An even more recent variation on the Bessemer converter concept is the basic oxygen process (BOP). In the BOP, a mixture of pig iron, scrap iron, and scrap steel is melted in a large steel container and a blast of pure oxygen is blown through the container. The introduction of alloying metals makes possible the production of various types of steel with many different properties.